Rethinking how we talk about men and others in midwifery

Date 19.11.2021

Traditional midwifery words and phrases don’t always reflect and help the modern world and the many people these health professionals work with.

This is according to research by University of Northampton (UON) academic and Senior Lecturer in Midwifery John Pendleton who has lectured on the subject for seven years after five years in practice. He is one of only 167 men who are midwives on the Nursing and Midwifery Council register out of a total population of 46,000 midwives.

For his research paper (En)Gendering the word ‘midwife’, John turns the microscope on how the meanings behind frequently used words and phrases in midwifery can miss, marginalise or misrepresent people, such as midwives who identify as male.

This includes words that suggest unhelpful power relationships (‘ladies’ or ‘girls’ can infantilise women and imply they are submissive or ‘genteel’), or female-slanted terminology that can exclude people who identify as men, either service users or midwives themselves.

On International Men’s Day, John continues by introducing his research: “As a man who is also a midwife, I have frequently encountered confusion from service users about the discord they perceive between my gender and their expectations of what gender a midwife should be. Even on internet chat rooms, male midwives are asked why they don’t refer to themselves as a ‘mid-husband’.

“19 countries have no men registered as midwives, five countries legally prohibit men from being midwives and, of the 37 countries which produced statistical data, the average proportion of midwives who identify as men is 0.63% of the professional population. It’s little wonder that male midwives are a vanishingly small quantity.”

He continues: “As humans, we understand our world and ascribe meanings to things and people by fitting them into pre-existing definitions or groups, so midwifery and midwives are not unique here.

“But it doesn’t help when the language used in and around the delivery room is automatically set to be more ‘female-oriented’.

“I hasten to add at this point that, in the most, this happens at a subconscious level, informed by established midwifery culture and how we talk about child birth in the wider world. Some of the wording comes from many centuries ago; the term midwifery, which means ‘with woman’, has been used in this country since at least the Middle Ages.

“But in our modern era, society is comprised of people from so many different walks of life and experiences than in the past, such as those who identify as trans or non-binary. This includes not just male midwives – who have been a visible, if small, presence in England for at least 40 years – but other healthcare professionals who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.”

Concluding his research, John suggests how the profession can help address this: “I’m not advocating to replace the word ‘midwife’, but what midwifery terminology needs is broader definitions and understanding of what is meant so we are as inclusive as possible.

“Considering how long such terminology has been in wide use, I wouldn’t expect this to happen overnight. We cannot rebuild Rome in a day, but I do feel we have approached a timely moment when, as a society, and as midwifery professionals, we can start thinking collectively about going in a better direction.

“If we, collectively, start to at least consider starting on this journey, we can open up the possibility for a multiplicity of intersecting meanings which can co-exist alongside each other and move us toward a more inclusive understanding of the role of gender in midwifery and midwives, which can only reap benefits for service users and ourselves.”

Read the full research paper here.